The Louisiana Attorney General’s office has more than 80 legal opinions posted online that address the state’s open meetings and public records laws but don’t expect James “Buddy” Caldwell’s office to assist if you run up against resistance from a state agency like, oh say, the Louisiana Department of Education when seeking public records.
When LouisianaVoice recently encountered characteristic foot-dragging by State Education Superintendent in complying with our request for records pertaining to the department’s connections to Bill Gates’ Shared Learning Collaborative and Wireless Generation, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., we asked for a little help from the attorney general’s office.
That help was not forthcoming so we had to go to our fall back plan—our legal counsel, J. Arthur Smith who loves to take on the bureaucracy.
Instead, we received a telephone call from an assistant attorney general somewhere deep within the bowels of the Livingston Building at 1885 North Third Street in Baton Rouge.
The assistant AG was polite enough as she explained that it was not the function of the attorney general’s office to assist the public in obtaining public records from recalcitrant state agencies.
“But, but, you do help when people are attempting to obtain access to public meetings,” we sputtered in disbelief.
“Yes,” she said, “but we are not involved in disputes over public records.”
“Yet you will get involved in enforcing open meeting laws?”
“Yes, that’s different.”
“Wait. What? Different?”
“But I thought the attorney general’s office would assist Louisiana citizens gain access to public records. Isn’t that the law?
“Where does it say that? We assist with public meetings.”
“You differentiate between public records and public meetings?”
“Yes. We will help with public meetings but we don’t involve ourselves with public records.”
“What’s the difference?”
“There is a difference.”
“What is it?”
“One issue is public meetings while the other is public records.”
Such is the surreal world one encounters when attempting to navigate the bureaucratic red tape of state government.
Yet, when one does a cursory internet search, it is easy enough to find opinion after opinion that addresses the very issue in question—like the following excerpts from Louisiana Attorney General opinions:
• The Department of Insurance must comply with a public records request made pursuant to LA. R.S. 44.1, et seq.
• Square footage obtained by the assessor in the performance of his or her constitutional and statutorily designated duties falls within the definition of a public record provided by the Public Records Act…
• The Slidell Memorial Hospital Foundation is a quasi-public body, subject to the open meetings laws, public records laws…
• Hand-held scanners may be used in the inspection of public records (we threw this one in because Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office refused us the opportunity several months back to use our hand-held scanner to inspect public records.)
• The nominating committee for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority is subject to the state’s “open meeting” and “public records” laws.
• When employees conduct official business through electronic communications, it becomes part of the public record which an individual may view…
• East Baton Rouge firefighters’ timesheets are a matter of public record…
And so on. You get our drift.
So, while no help can be anticipated from within the Louisiana Department of Justice (because, in the words of the late Richard Pryor, it’s “just US,” or in this case, “just them”), we will nevertheless plod along in our attempt to keep our readership informed—even to the point of employing the considerable persuasive legal talents of J. Arthur Smith who loves his job almost as much as we love ours.